The teamwork, togetherness and respect embodied in rugby carries lessons in diversity for multinational businesses operating in Japan.
Japan is consumed by Rugby World Cup 2019 fever as I write in October 2019. The 48 matches in 12 cities across Japan over two months are expected to attract over 500,000 “rugby-inbound” tourists, raking in the total economic benefit of over 430 billion yen (Economic Impact of Rugby World Cup 2019 report¹).
Brave Blossoms, the Japanese national team, enjoyed a Quarter-final place fueling the domestic enthusiasm. Whatever the outcome of the rest of the matches, the legacy of RWC on Japan will stay. On a direct level, anecdotally, it could boost the domestic rugby population by 10%-20%, if in line with the previous RWC host countries. On an indirect level, it will put Japan, including its rural RWC host cities such as Kamaishi, more prominently on the map in the world’s mind for holiday destination.
The psychological impact of RWC on the Japanese, however, may be even more profound. As Japan cheered for the Brave Blossoms, we couldn’t help but notice that half, 15 out of 31, of the members are from origins other than Japan. This is possible because rugby admits its players to represent a national team other than the country of birth. Some non-Japanese athletes speak fluent Japanese, others less so. Regardless, for a country with a precipitated decline of domestic population gingerly opening doors to foreign workers, it is uplifting to witness the power of diversity in action.
But it will be premature to attribute the organizational charm of rugby only to its openness to diversity. One can never underestimate the spirit of solidarity that binds the star athletes despite the visible differences and ego.
Every sport is a culture with its own spiritual language. That said, rugby particularly strikes me as deeply rooted in its philosophy. It is the culture of teamwork, togetherness and respect. Because of these universal values at its core, rugby is an internationally acclaimed sport, despite being physically brutal, with a wide skirt of fan base now including 30% women.
Respect manifests itself in behavior. All 30 team members of All Blacks, still revered in the eyes of world rugby fans, make a habit of leaving the changing room spotless. No exception is made whether you are the captain or sitting on the bench.
The yin and yang of solidarity and diversity is directly relevant to business. It may even seem rudimentary. After all, it is today a common sense, if not practiced to perfection, that business requires a purpose to unify its people’s minds and that it should be inclusive of diverse backgrounds. Management, however, needs to be careful where to draw the line between uniformity and uniqueness when it comes to dimensions more subtle than skin tone.
Khalil Younes, a French-Lebanese citizen has spent the last five years as Chief Marketing Officer of Coca-Cola Japan. Armed with both his Japan and global experiences, he recently reflected with me on the dilemmas for multinational companies’ expatriates operating in Japan. According to Khalil, expats in leadership positions often have to reassess the relevance of their companies ‘global norms’ and what worked for them elsewhere. Expats freshly arrived may become fixated with ‘fixing’ the Japan local processes to bring them closer to global norms or proven ways of working outside Japan.
But is it really the right tree to bark at, Khalil asks. Japan over time has developed its unique idiosyncrasies and ways of working for adapting to its market. Decision-making typically has a longer ‘set-up time’, in which ideas are born, socialized, circulated, studied and aligned among an exhaustive list of stakeholders. Once aligned, the execution of ideas will however be typically swift and precise and will not need more iterations or rework. While the total time will be more or less the same as elsewhere, efficiency-driven expats struggle with the perceived Japanese ‘meeting-mania’, diluted project leadership and lack of a ‘sense of urgency’.
Perhaps as a leader, Khalil argues, you are better off focusing on the desired outcomes, articulate them transparently and leave adjusting the processes to the Japanese staff in the trench.
Moreover, overweighting the most vocal or better English-speaking team members is a trap, says Khalil. The true trooper applying the ‘Stoic’ (an actual word in Japanese) values of hard work, resilience, patience, self-control and forbearance - may be invisible to expat management. Here, expats must consider the spectrum of diversity and question if sufficient emotional awareness is given in all its cultural dimensions.
We don’t need a PhD in psychology to agree that sense of belonging makes you a better team player, be it sport or business. You belong if you share your core beliefs, and yet you can be yourself, the yin and yang of solidarity and diversity. But where does solidarity end and diversity start? The equation is not as simple as it seems, but a worthwhile one to ponder over a beer while watching a rugby game.
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